History is an essential, though often overlooked, resource in determining how to respond to contemporary social problems. Todd Scribner’s A Partisan Church: American Catholicism and the Rise of Neo-Conservative Catholics is a valuable contribution for those who recognize that understanding the past can make the present ever more intelligible just as it provides models of success on which to build and examples of failure to avoid. In this book, Scribner seeks to make sense of the debates that emerged among U.S. Catholics after the Second Vatican Council (1962−1965) on matters both internal and external to the Church. Scribner’s careful historical analysis of neo-conservative Catholic ideas and the ideas of their opponents on matters like abortion, foreign policy, and ecclesiology, among other contentious issues, is a valuable resource that prompts reflection on the ways in which members of the Church, other institutions of civil society, and the state are engaged in similar debates today.
Context matters. Scribner succinctly situates the rise of neo-conservative Catholics—focusing on the work of Richard J. Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel—within the broader shifts happening in church and society at mid-century. He explains that their ascendency was facilitated by a number of factors, including the rise in education levels among Catholics in the United States, their attendant increase in prosperity after World War II, and the fragmentation of Catholic intellectual life during the period following the Second Vatican Council. Looking at the broader U.S. culture, Scribner explains how denominational distinctions gave way to political alliances irrespective of religious affiliation. Evangelicals and Catholics, for example, [End Page 107] began to cooperate after a long history of mutual hostility. From the broad to the specific, Scribner also diligently traces the development and ongoing transformation of the ideas of Neuhaus, Novak, and Weigel. Here, the author provides effective summaries of complex arguments, not only of the trio who are the subject of the book but also those with whom they engaged in debate.
Neoconservative Catholics engaged in debates on a wide range of political issues across the 1970s and 1980s. Scribner highlights the role of these three intellectuals in debates surrounding abortion and U.S. foreign policy to illustrate and analyze the development of their thought during the Reagan era. He does not examine their ideas in the abstract but seeks to understand them on their own terms within the political context of the period, namely the passage of Roe v. Wade and the policies of presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, respectively. Likewise, on matters of foreign policy, Scribner focuses on neoconservative anti-communism as it operated in the Soviet era, especially with respect to political developments in Latin America in the wake of the Vietnam War. On each issue, Scribner explains, neoconservative Catholics emphasized that ideas matter as do the institutions that can most effectively actualize those ideas. The “neocon” U.S. foreign policy position, for example, emerged from the conviction that “the institutions most effective at protecting and promoting human rights are those found in liberal democracies” (100).
Matters of ecclesiology run throughout the entire book, culminating in the final chapter, which deals with the ways in which neoconservative Catholics viewed the proper relationship between the clergy and the laity. Neuhaus, Novak, and Weigel famously opposed the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastorals on war (1983) and the economy (1986). They defended what they viewed as a central insight of Vatican II, namely that the Church had rejected the “Constantinian temptation” to forge alliances between church and the state. As Scribner explains, they opposed such alliances on the left and on the right. These neoconservative Catholics preferred that the clergy focus on matters spiritual and cultural while the laity, expert in public policy matters, attend to matters temporal.
Readers will find this book valuable for a number of reasons. It provides a historical overview of U.S. Catholic involvement in major social questions during the decades immediately following Vatican II. It deeply contextualizes those efforts within...